Page 25 of Before (After 5)


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Hell yes, I am. I’m not going to leave her alone in here to fuck with my shit or throw up all over my books.

“You bring out the worst in me.” Her comment surprises me out of my silence.

“That’s harsh,” I snap at her. I bring out the worst in her? She doesn’t even know me. I continue: “And yes, I am going to sit here and babysit you. You’re drunk for the first time in your life, and you have a habit of touching my things when I’m not around.”

I sit down on my bed as she cautiously takes a drink of my water. Thought so. The room is probably beginning to spin for her. Poor girl. I watch her carefully as she gulps down the water. The way her eyes close and she licks her lips when she’s finished, the way she breathes too heavily. I stare at her without her noticing and try my damnedest not to overthink why I’m staring at her in the first place.

There’s just so damn much that I don’t know about her, so many things I want to know.

She seems so readable from the outside. She’s blond, beautiful in a simple way, and I can tell by the old-fashioned way she speaks that she spends hours and hours with her face buried in a book. Yet her temper and the giant chip on her shoulder make me wonder what’s underneath all that.

“Can I ask you a question?” I speak without thinking. I try and smile at her, but I get the feeling that I look like a fucking creep.

Her brows push together. “S-s-s-s-sure,” she says, drawing out her answer.

What the hell am I going to ask her? I had kind of assumed she would tell me to go to hell.

I go for the easiest question I can think of. “What do you want to do after college?” I know that I should’ve asked something more personal, something to help me win this game with Zed.

Tessa seems to ponder the question, tapping her finger against her chin before she answers. “Well, I want to be an author or a publisher, whichever comes first.”

I could see that, easily.

I don’t tell her that I plan to do the exact same thing. Instead, I stare blankly ahead after rolling my eyes.

“Are those your books?” Tessa waves toward my bookshelves.

“They are,” I mumble.

“Which is your favorite?”

Fucking Christ, she’s nosy.

“I don’t play favorites,” I lie. She’s getting too personal, and she’s been in here awhile. Her knowing my favorite books won’t help me get what I want.

I need to turn this around, make it less personal. I need to annoy her. “Does Mr. Rogers know you’re at a party again?”

My smirk complements her scowl. Mission accomplished.

“Mr. Rogers?”

“Your boyfriend,” I explain. “He’s the biggest tool I have ever seen.”

“Don’t talk about him like that. He is . . . he is . . . nice.”

I can’t help but laugh at the way she fumbles for a compliment about her loafer-wearing boyfriend.

She waves a finger at me. “You could only dream of being as nice as he is.”

“Nice? That’s the first word that comes to your mind when talking about your boyfriend? Nice is your ‘nice’ way of calling him boring.” I laugh.

“You don’t know him,” she insists with admittedly impressive fearlessness.

“Well, I know that he’s boring. I could tell by his cardigan and loafers.” I’m laughing now, really laughing, and my stomach tightens. I can’t help it. When I look up at her pissed-off expression, I laugh harder, imagining the human Ken doll whining over a hole in his cashmere sweater.

“He doesn’t wear loafers.” Tessa covers her mouth to hide her need to laugh. I get it. I would laugh, too. She takes another drink of my water and I keep going.

“Well, he’s been dating you for two years and hasn’t fucked you yet. I would say he’s a square.”

As my words hit the air, Tessa spits water back into the cup.

“What the hell did you just say?”

“You heard me, Theresa.” I smile at her, fueling her anger.

“You’re an asshole, Hardin.”

Man, I love how fiery she gets when—

Cold water splashes against my face.

I gasp, surprised by her audacity. I thought we were having fun, throwing rude comments back and forth. I was purposely aggravating her, and it seemed that she was enjoying getting riled up just as much as I enjoyed riling her.

By the disgusted expression on her face, it occurs to me that maybe she doesn’t.

Why the hell did I even bring up her boyfriend in the first place? I’m a damn idiot. She was fine, sitting in my room, laughing with me, and I had to ruin it.

Tessa leaves my room quickly as I wipe the water from my face and step into my doorway, watching as she takes the staircase two steps at a time.

Back in my room, the quiet hum of my ceiling fan is my only company. I sit down on my bed, and for the first time since I moved into the house, I wish I wasn’t alone in this room.



nine

The moment her lips touched his for the first time, he felt it. He felt a shift somewhere deep inside, somewhere hidden and covered in dust. It was completely untouched since he could remember, likely forever. She awakened him, brought him light and laughter and longing and he knew from the moment her mouth found his, he would never be the same.

Tessa just threw water in my face and left my room in a storm of huffs and puffs and eye rolls. Yet here I am, following her down the stairs after only a few minutes of sitting in my room, whining to myself like a little child throwing a fit over his favorite toy breaking.

Only Tessa isn’t my favorite toy; she’s too shiny, too new for my dirty hands to play with.

I was only trying to lighten her mood, to cheer her up, but I obviously failed. I should have known that bringing up the subject of her lame-ass boyfriend would be a trigger for her temper.

She’s so annoying. She feels entitled and she’s moody. Overly sensitive, she is, and she pisses me the fuck off. Who throws a drink, water . . . but still . . . into someone’s face like that? For someone who thinks so highly of themselves, she sure does behave like a petulant child.

When I get to the bottom of the stairs, Tessa’s in the kitchen, taking a drink from a bottle of liquor. She’s looking around the room for someone, and as I watch her my phone goes off in my pocket, another text from Ken: Karen’s making dinner tonight if you want to stop by. There’s something I want to talk to you about. You haven’t responded to my other texts, so I figured one at 3:00 am would at least get to you when you were awake.

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